Like pretty much everyone else navigating pandemic life, Jesse Israel is somewhere he didn’t expect he’d be right now.
The founder of The Big Quiet started 2020 off on a major high: touring the United States with Oprah Winfrey, sharing his passion for the healing powers of meditation with crowds of over 15,000. But right now is a different story. Right now he’s in Los Angeles, quarantining at his parents’ house. Which means one of the wellness industry’s leaders is currently conducting business from his childhood bedroom.
“It's been redone several times, so it has sort of a just-graduated-from-college, bachelor-pad type of feel to it,” Israel says of the room, a smile evident in his voice even through the phone. “But I have this little stegosaurus bedside lamp from when I was a kid, and it’s the one item that has remained. I love that little guy. It’s on right now.”
Israel, a former record company heavyweight, started The Big Quiet as a way to build community through meditation. Taking something solitary and turning it into a group activity, the company has helped bring mindfulness to the masses, hosting large meditation sessions in places like Madison Square Garden and the American Museum of Natural History. There’s palpable power in numbers, even if everyone’s eyes are closed.
But then the pandemic hit, forcing us all into isolation and changing the way we think about sharing time and space with others. For Israel, it’s forced an evolution: what do you do when your business is rooted in the idea of coming together, of feeling the energy in a room full of people?
“There was a sense of mourning,” he admits. “It was hard to let go of what we thought the year was going to look like, and to open up to something new. But with this change there were new constraints, and with new constraints came new ways to innovate. So it’s just about adapting and starting to figure out how we can do our work and help and serve through virtual events.”
That has manifested in the form of online introductory courses taught by Israel (described on The Big Quiet’s site as “for people who think they can’t meditate”). Over three sessions, participants are guided through the basics of a simple meditation practice that they can continue to use on their own, from the comfort and safety of their houses.
“I spend a lot of time in front of the selfie ring light,” Israel jokes. “I think it’s also been cool for people to be able to learn and practice and be in this community from their own homes, with other people from all over the world, in real time. There’s a real silver lining that I’ve really done my best to look at: how I can lovingly mourn the change that’s occurred with my business, while also being open to the innovation and the creativity that can come from new constraints being placed on the business and on our world right now.”
For those new to meditation, Israel suggests beginning with something guided—whether that be through The Big Quiet, or with smartphone apps like 1 Giant Mind (his favourite), Headspace, or Calm. From there, he says it’s about starting with just a few minutes a day, being gentle with yourself, and not expecting too much too soon.
“The thing I hear all the time is people feel like meditation is not for them because their mind is always wandering,” he says. “And I always remind people that it’s so natural that your mind’s wandering; it’s how the mind works. It doesn’t make you a bad meditator, it just means you’re human. So be patient and loving with yourself when you sit down to practice.”
Israel, who meditates for 20 to 30 minutes twice a day, credits his own practice with helping him through debilitating anxiety, panic attacks, and trouble sleeping. It’s also helped him form deeper connections—both with himself and with others. So it makes sense that he says one of the other non-negotiables in his wellness toolkit is identifying a few trusted people to have vulnerable, open, and meaningful conversations with. You know, the sort of people who ask you how you are and want the real answer.
He’s also been prioritizing joy and rest, taking his time in isolation to recharge and have a bit of fun instead of feeling the need to fill every moment with something productive. He loves going for walks and putting his bare feet in the earth (“When we put our feet—or really any of our body’s skin—on the earth’s surface, there are electrons that get transferred from the earth and into our body”); taking baths (“Baths regularly!”); making face masks (“Big skincare guy”); luxuriating in a housecoat (“I try to wear my robe at least a couple nights every week”); and using essential oils in his vitruvi Stone Diffuser (“I am a big fan”). Ritual is huge for him, too, helping anchor and ground him—regardless of whether he’s on the road with Winfrey or answering calls from his parents’ house.
It’s hard to know when we’ll be able to comfortably gather again the way that we used to—the way that The Big Quiet meant for us to. But one thing does become clear when speaking with Israel: we’re not as alone as we think we are.
Because if you think about it, in a way we’re all just laying on our own metaphorical childhood beds—maybe a little nostalgic, maybe a little uncomfortable, washed in the soft glow of a lamp, hearts heavy but hopeful, wondering what’s next.